In February 2004 Mel Gibson’s film featuring the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus was released in the United States. Its appeal proved spectacular, an estimated thirty million people viewing it within the first two months. As the film circulated in many other countries it aroused a similar level of interest.

One result has been that many people who normally avoid conversation about things “religious” have felt disposed to speak freely about the film’s depiction of the Lord’s suffering. This opens opportunities for Christian believers to testify about the true meaning of Christ’s death and the saving power of the gospel.

Evangelical reviewers of the film have noted the bold emphasis given to scriptures such as Isaiah 53:5 which could be spiritually helpful to some. Yet otherwise there is nothing clearly to explain the real purpose of the Lord’s death. A horrific impression of sadism, cruelty and violence dominates the film. This contrasts sharply with the Gospel accounts which are restrained in referring to the physical aspects of the Lord’s sufferings. John’s account is typical:

So then Pilate took Jesus and scourged Him. And the soldiers twisted a crown of thorns and put it on His head, and they put on Him a purple robe. And they struck Him with their hands …. So they took Jesus and led Him away And He. bearing His cross, went out to a place called the Place of a Skull … where they crucified Him (John 19:1-3, 16-18)

Interestingly it’s from Old Testament prophetic passages such as Isaiah chapters 50 and 53, or Psalms 22 and 69 that we are given deeper insights to both the physical and spiritual agonies of the Lord’s crucifixion experience. [/p][p] There is evangelical criticism also of the unscriptural prominence given to Mary, the mother of Jesus. This doubtless reflects Gibson’s Roman Catholic background, which is shared by James Caviezel who plays the part of Jesus in the film. From a Jewish perspective there has been complaint that the film is anti-semitic, for it seems to lay blame primarily on the Jewish leaders who forced Pilate’s hand by political blackmail. Scripture apportions a share of blame to both Jew and Gentile:

For truly against Your Holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together (Acts 4:27)

Yet to Pilate the Lord Jesus also said:

the one who delivered Me to you has greater sin (John 19:11)

Gibson himself denies any anti-semitic motivation, claiming that the film was not intended to exaggerate Jewish responsibility for the condemnation of Christ.

The wisdom of God is seen in the relatively smaller emphasis in the Gospels on the physical trauma endured by our Saviour. For in the Epistles the purpose of and necessity for His death are wonderfully unfolded, revealing the momentous spiritual issues involved. Human cruelty, injustice and violence had provided a background of fearful human sin, against which God’s holiness, justice, love and compassion were brilliantly displayed. The Sufferer is seen as a lamb without blemish and without spot … foreordained before the foundation of the world (1 Pet.1:19,20). At Calvary God set Him forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith, to demonstrate His righteousness … that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom.3:25,26). There also Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree). (Gal.3:13)

Because of that perfectly completed redemptive work, each believer in Jesus may know the assurance of sins forgiven and eternal deliverance from the righteous judgement of God. Having freely received that wonderful salvation, the Christian’s walk with God is to be conditioned by the Saviour’s example of suffering (1Pet.2:21). Let the message of the cross always remain central to our testimony. May we also learn to share the apostle Paul’s recognition that the Cross stands between us and a Christ-rejecting world:

God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (Gal.6:14)